Lessons From the New York Subway

During my recent visit to New York, I inevitably ended up travelling across town on the subway. As I entered the carriage I saw a guy with a guitar slung around his neck, just quietly strumming to himself, obviously rehearsing. Another guy sat across the carriage from me struck up a conversation with him. It went as follows;

“Hey man, you gonna play some tunes?”

“Yeah…” replied the guy with the guitar.

“Cool,” replies the first guy, “what you play?”

“Bit of soul, R&B kinda stuff… y’know?”

“Awesome. Hey I’m a bit of a poet man, I write lyrics, you mind if I freestyle over your stuff?” (I’m now getting interested as this could either be brilliant or terrible!)

“Sure man… my names Akil”

“Cool, I’m Randy Mason, pleased to meet you.”

With that, Akil proceeded to ask the permission of the passengers in the train to play… no-one seemed to object, in fact the people in the immediate vicinity seemed to be as interested as me as to how this was going to sound…

It was immediately apparent that Akil could play – I mean really play. His vocals came in over the top and it was just as he’d described… y’know… soul, R&B kinda stuff. The other guy was looking for his cue and he took it…

Starting to rap coolly in the breaks until BAM! Akil starts beat boxing whilst shredding it up on the guitar and Randy was channelling NAS and Rakim. It became clear that this was not the first time these two had met (they are actually2/3 of the indie band The Crowd – listen to “A Memoir” either on their Facebook page or by clicking The_Crowd-A_Memoir), and after they received a rapturous applause… they admitted as much. It was a great piece of hustling… suck the audience in with a story, get their attention and then blow them away with a great performance.

Compare this to an experiment carried out by The Washington Post. Joshua Bell, arguably one of the greatest living violinists, to play in L’Enfant Plaza – a train station in Washington DC – during rush hour. Bell would play one of the most complex compositions from JS Bach entitled “Chaconne”, oh yes – and he would play it on a violin handcrafted in 1713!

Joshua Bell can normally command a performance fee equivalent to $1000 per minute! How much did he make during his 43 minute performance in the train station?

About thirty-two bucks!

You can read the full article and watch the video of his performance here.

The Washington Post draws all kind of conclusions about society based on this experiment and they weren’t aiming to address the point I’m about to make… but it made me look at the differences between Akil, Randy and Joshua.

You must engage your audience in order to get them to “buy in”. It is not enough to rely on the quality of your message. You need to demonstrate a reason for people to listen to and act upon what you have to say.

This has implications in all kinds of professions or leadership roles… and Teaching.

The otherwise distracted commuters in Washington – on their mobiles, or listening to iPods act as a metaphor for our students. They have a lot going on in their lives. They are exposed to the most exciting, all-consuming media of all time… so you better have something interesting to say to get their attention… but more than that, you need to give them a context. Why is it important that they listen? Why do they need to understand what you’re trying to teach them?

And if your only answer is either, “Because it’s going to be in the exam” or “Because you’ll need to know this when you’re older,” then maybe we need a better curriculum!

Akil and Randy gave the passengers a reason to listen on the Subway, so we bought in – literally – $5 for a CD was great value! I saw Randy sell at least 5 CDs just in the 15 mins I was in the carriage.

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0 thoughts on “Lessons From the New York Subway

  1. Pingback: Kids Shouldn’t Go To School | Teacher Mum

  2. A faith inspired dossier for the modern woman Reply

    Context. This is a great point you make. I have actually thought a lot about this recently and couldn’t agree more. Our generation of parents seem to have this concept down a lot better than our parents! I hope understanding the “why” will encourage them in the right direction.

    Best.

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